Monday, July 14, 2008

Sue Grafton's Alphabetical Mystery Novels: ABC and Do, Re, Mi

(Reflections on Sue Grafton's S IS FOR SILENCE, involving earlier novels in her series, including I, J, K, L, M, N, and O.)

Writing detective fiction must be a lot like composing music. How much can a creative person do with the same handful of keys? The composer and mystery writer have to meet certain expectations: grabbing our attention early, setting a mood early, introducing some new material in the first half of the piece, repeating certain material over and over until we "get" it, and leading up to some climaxes (in music, "cadences") at intervals before reaching the finale.

The analogy is an easy one to see in Sue Grafton's series, since her alphabet series overlapped the musical scale for the first octave, at least. About those, I can say nothing, because I picked up "I IS FOR INNOCENT" pretty much at random from a grocery store book rack when I was desperate for something to read. Judging from those, I'd say that, like a composer, she is learning from doing, and she is setting herself some new formal challenges along the way.

Of all that I've read, S IS FOR SILENCE has the most formal experimentation, and it's very much a musical form. Grafton has written a novelist's equivalent of a Rondo. Late musicologist Karl Haas used to compare a rondo to a musical sandwich: bread, then something new, followed always by bread, and so on. The novel S IS FOR SILENCE begins on July 4, 1953, the night that little Daisy Sullivan and babysitter Liza Mellincamp last saw Daisy's mother Violet (and her yapping little Pomeranian dog). The next chapter begins thirty-four years later, when grown-up and messed-up Daisy hires detective Kinsey Millhone to find out once and for all whether her mother abandoned her that night, or was killed by her abusive husband, or something else. For the rest of the novel, there is this alternation between chapters about the forward-moving (and backward-looking) investigation and chapters focused on what each of the characters was doing July 3 and 4, 1953.

This formal choice was a good one. We got to know the victim, warts and all, and Grafton got to branch out from her usual first-person persona to get into the outlooks of her different characters, including a couple of very different adolescent girls. I looked forward to wading in these little pools of past, and then I looked forward to seeing how each new piece of information ("Oh, Violet was seeing this man, too") fit into the picture that these characters were presenting of themselves 34 years later.

There are certain formal characteristics that Grafton continues in all the novels that I've read, but she always finds a way to vary them. First, there's the first - person narration by Kinsey Millhone, whose car is an apt image for herself: a battered but reliable Volkswagen beetle. In all the novels, the event that gets the story going is violence that happened months or years before. New violence waits until much later in these books. Grafton manages to squeeze Millhone into corners just at the moment that the detective "gets" it -- the criminal has also figured out that she's got it -- and there's going to be a violent confrontation.

Reading I, J, and K, I was at first annoyed by what seemed to be intrusions. In my notes, I asked, "Padding, or reality? Do we need details about drinking water, sorting mail? misspelling? clothes? her Spanish class? the annoyance of telemarketers?" I'm glad I wrote all that down, because I could appreciate later when Grafton brought those digressions into the mainline of her plot -- as when Kinsey uses the ploy of being a telemarketer to elicit information from an unsuspecting suspect.

Grafton also seems to find a way to break routine, to distinguish one novel from the others. S has its rondo form; K grows into a meditation on night life, as Kinsey loses sleep investigating the murder of a "sex worker." L takes her cross-country, trying to reach the point of origin before the scary villain does -- and he's hot on her heels. In O, she is confronted with a misjudgement of her own youth, and she's working to clear the name of her first husband. N is set almost entirely in a sort of "town of the damned," where the entire population seems to be hostile and dangerous.

Once in awhile, we see inside the mind of the author, and that's a quality I like in music, too, to see a process of development at work. Grafton displays her own brainstorming for possible plot twists in those places where Kinsey sits with scattered index cards, looking for connections -- a ritual that Kinsey does in every one of these novels. I imagine if we checked Grafton's work room, we'd see index cards pinned to a bulletin board. Kinsey's reflection on her work is undoubtedly an expression of Grafton's own feelings as she's deep into a novel. This is from J:
At this stage of any investigation, I'm inclined to impatience. It always feels the same way to me -- as though this is the case that's finally going to do me in. ... I don't always succeed in the way I anticipate. The problem with being a PI is there isn't any rule book.
There's one other element hard to describe, but very easy to appreciate: the books have heart. I don't mean tear-jerking stuff. Some boyfriends come into the background, and those are the least interesting things in the books. But sometimes Kinsey is insensitive, or angry, or vindictive. Grafton works these out in graceful moments of self-awareness and remorse. I especially liked Kinsey's reflection, when a difficult witness is formally polite to her, and they end the conversation cordially: It's not that we're nice to the people that we like. We like the people that we're nice to.

I hear that T is another twist, told from the point of view of the killer. That's been done before, but not by Grafton. I'm looking forward to grabbing it up soon.

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